MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Most Filipinos want their government to assert the country's rights in the disputed South China Sea after an arbitration tribunal invalidated China's vast territorial claims and ruled the Philippines can fish and exploit resources in the contested waters, according to an opinion poll released Friday.
The Dec. 6-11 survey by independent pollster Pulse Asia showed 84 percent of 1,200 adult Filipinos polled nationwide agreed the government should uphold its rights in the disputed waters. It said 3 percent disagreed and 12 percent neither agreed nor disagreed. The survey had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
President Rodrigo Duterte has rapidly improved once-frosty relations with China and declined to forcefully and immediately demand its compliance with the July 12 arbitration ruling, which Beijing has refused to recognize.
That prompted China to allow Filipinos to resume fishing at the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which the Chinese coast guard seized in 2012. Following that move, the Philippine government under then President Benigno Aquino III brought its disputes with China to international arbitration, angering Beijing.
While Duterte has reached out to China, he has lashed out at the administration of then President Barack Obama and the U.S. State Department for raising human rights concerns about his deadly anti-drug crackdown, which has left thousands of drug suspects dead.
Duterte has repeatedly threatened to scale back military exercises with American troops and stop agreements that allow U.S. forces to visit, including an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that was signed in 2014 to allow U.S. forces to be temporarily stationed in designated Philippine military camps, along with their aircraft, ships and defense equipment.
Duterte and his security officials, however, have frequently walked back on their threats. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Thursday that "EDCA is still on," adding that the Pentagon plans to start constructing facilities inside designated Philippine military camps.
Lorenzana mentioned at least three Philippine camps where the Americans plan to start constructions of buildings for their troops and equipment, including an air base in western Palawan province, which faces the South China Sea.
The U.S. military construction plans were delayed due to petitions to the Supreme Court that questioned EDCA's legality. The court declared that the defense pact conforms with the Philippine Constitution last year.
Duterte has said his administration will honor all agreements forged by previous presidents, "so that's fine with him," Lorenzana said, referring to the planned U.S. military construction.